Can You Spoil a Baby?

The experts don'’t think so.


When my baby turned 6 months old, my mother showed up with a potty chair and the clear implication that it was “time.”

“Mom, she can’t even stand up yet!” I objected.

But Mom had been dispatching advice since Kiah was born. The gist was that by the time Kiah was a month old, she should be nursing on schedule and sleeping through the night, and I was supposed to be showing her who was boss.

“You’re spoiling her!” Mom scolded me regularly.

The irony was that she had raised me on Dr. Spock’s advice, which often boils down to: Pick up your baby — she’s crying for a reason. It seemed that Mom was trying to undo her “mistakes.”

Apparently, the concept of the indulged infant recurs with each new generation. “It just breaks my heart,” says Loraine Stern, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a private practitioner in Newhall, Calif. “Grandparents, aunts and uncles constantly tell young parents that they are spoiling their babies by picking them up too much.”

This is documented in a recent poll by Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that promotes healthy child development. A broad range of American parents and grandparents were surveyed on a number of child-related issues, including spoiling. It turned out that much of what parents didn’t rate as spoiling, grandparents did — including picking up a baby whenever she cries.

Holding and comforting a new baby each time she cries is essentially correct, Stern says, but very few young parents possess the self-confidence to understand that their impulses are right. You have to be strong to buck criticism from your parents and older friends and relatives — people who have been through it all before.

It’s been a long time since most experts urged parents to let tiny infants cry. Psychologist John B. Watson, Ph.D., the first influential modern baby-care writer, wrote in the 1920s that parents could start molding babies into obedient children by regulating their eating and sleeping habits, as well as other aspects of their lives. Then came Benjamin Spock, M.D., with his famous book, Baby and Child Care, in the late 1940s, urging parents to relax and enjoy their children. Parents of baby boomers responded with relief and a less structured approach to raising their kids.

Dr. Spock later emphasized that while babies should not be disciplined, older children need limits. Today’s baby docs tend to follow Spock’s original thinking, particularly for infants. For example, pediatrician/author Penelope Leach urges parents to comfort crying babies by picking them up and talking to them. “The fear of spoiling a baby is a tragic one,” writes Leach.

Babies need love

For years, researchers have assessed the effects of caretakers’ attention — or lack thereof — on babies. British psychiatrist John Bowlby studied war orphans in the 1950s, creating the foundation for understanding the need to answer a baby’s cries. Essentially, he found that babies whose cries went unheeded failed to thrive. In one experiment, he invented a cuddly machine that imitated a mother’s walk. When placed in it, babies stopped crying at once.

Recent studies have shown that young babies who are held often and have their cries answered are more self-contented. Studies by Miami researcher Tiffany Field, Ph.D., on infant massage suggest that babies thrive on touch. Tiny preemies who are massaged for 15 minutes three times a day leave the hospital on average six days sooner than those who aren’t touched.

There is another — some say reactionary — school of thought that says babies need to be placed on rigid schedules and learn to quiet themselves. One such person, Gary Ezzo, co-author of On Becoming Babywise (Multnomah Publishers, 1998), has come under attack from doctors for his program, which calls for what some consider strict rules on eating and sleeping for babies as young as 8 weeks old. To help their child learn to get a good night’s sleep, according to Babywise, parents can ignore a baby’s tears for up to 35 minutes as long as the baby is clean and fed. But most child-care experts disagree with this kind of forced programming.

What is spoiling?

“You can’t give a baby under 6 months too much love — or cuddle them too much,” says Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., a child-development specialist at Zero to Three and the mother of two. “I’d like to do away with this whole concept of spoiling,” she adds. “I would reframe it as: ‘Am I doing something for my child that she can really do for herself?’” For example, by 6 months of age, most babies are able to go to sleep by themselves, Lerner says. “So if we continue at 7 and 8 months to rock them or nurse them to sleep, they might be missing out on the opportunity to do that on their own.” But rather than following a rigid plan, she says, parents should observe their babies and trust their instincts.

“Parents need to ask themselves if what they are doing is good for themselves [because they want to sleep] or good for the baby,” says pediatrician Stern.

When it comes to “training” babies to do what you want, they are not cognitively ready to understand until about age 1, according to Stern. “Younger babies just don’t recognize cause and effect,” she says.

That’s good data to present to any interfering relative.